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Sunday, 9 October 2011

1.8 – Can Islamic Extremism ever be Religiously Justified?

There are no verses in the Qur’an, Sunna, or Hadiths that explicitly justify terrorism, but radical Islamists invoke religion when attempting to justify or legitimise their actions. They define Islamic fundamentalism as ‘a method for the search of the religious truth…a religious method’,[1] and claim faith is the root cause of their campaigns of violent behaviour. The Islamic scriptures are considered literal guidelines for all aspects of life, and extremists  propose that every (violent) action has a religious foundation and legitimacy. ‘It is to religion – however misused and abused – that the jihadis regularly appeal when talking about their beliefs or explaining their actions…they claim to have chosen every strategy, tactic, and target…based on religious principles.’[2] 'Islamic terrorists' claim their actions are physical embodiments of Allah’s will, and obtain clerical sanctioning for violence to make it acceptable.

However, is the use of religious symbolism and scripture due to a pure reading of Islam , or have the Holy Scriptures been reworked and redefined for ulterior motives? This article addresses Islamic concepts that are part of the fabric of Islam, but are frequently invoked by Islamic terrorists. It assesses whether they provide legitimate religious justification, or if they have been perverted  in order to provide a theological diktat for violent behaviour.

Cosmic War
Cosmic warfare sets the stage for religiously motivated violence and the hostility and separation between Islam and its ‘enemies’ is embedded in Islamic religious history. As found within the majority of other faiths, radical Islamists hold a Manichean worldview that portrays a world divided; one in which Islam is embroiled in a clash between good and evil (with Islam representing the former, and Western values and principles, the latter). Such stringent dichotomy dictates that ‘enemies’ of Islam must be destroyed in order to purify the world. There can only be two options –  Dar al-Islam (The House of Islam), and the Dar al-Harb (House of War) – referring respectively to Muslim countries, and those countries that are not ruled by Sharia. The distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is reinforced, and anyone who does not adhere to the level of piety defined by extremists becomes a legitimate target for violent retribution.

Cosmic war is not only presented as a world-view by religious terrorists, but as a necessary state in which to remain. Bin Laden claimed that a constant state of conflict between ‘true Islam’ and the kufr (infidels) must be maintained, as it is a religious obligation for all Muslims. ‘This is a matter of religion and creed…there is no way to forget the hostility between us and the infidels. It is ideological, so Muslims have to ally themselves with Muslims.’[4]  This understanding encourages the continuation of a state of war, where violence is justified, and legitimises terror committed against anyone who does not adhere to a rigid ideology. It also reinforces the division between radical Islam and the rest of the infidel world.

Self Defence
Similarly to Christianity and Judaism, there are verses within the Qur'an that sanction the use of violence in certain situations. Verses that say violence can be used in self-defence are often reworked and employed by radicals to provide the primary justification for violent behaviour. Within the Qur’anic creed, it states that Muslims cannot adopt a position of attack in the context of war: ‘…do not aggress; God dislikes the aggressors’ (5:87). However, violence is permitted if the need to defend the Ummah arises:

Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for God loves not transgressors. And slay them wherever you catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter... But if they cease, God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful... If they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression. (Qur’an 2:190-193)

Extremists utilise distorted interpretations of such passages to promote the concept of Islam as a victim being attacked and encroached upon by the West. They claim their religion is in jeopardy, and refer to the above Qur’anic verses to support their call for armed jihad to defend their faith from advancing Westernisation. (This is an interesting paradox as the some communities in the West see themselves as being under attack from a progressive and dangerous radical Islamist vanguard.) A clear example of the theory of self-defence was seen in February 1998 when an Arabic newspaper, Al-Quds al- ’Arabi, published bin Laden’s ‘Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and the Crusaders’. Within it he proclaimed:

For more than seven years the United States is occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of its territories, Arabia, plundering its riches, overwhelming its rulers, humiliating its people, threatening its neighbours, and using its bases in the peninsula as a spearhead to fight against the neighbouring Islamic peoples.[5]

He claimed such actions were tantamount to: ‘A clear declaration of war by the Americans against God, His Prophet, and the Muslims. In such a situation, it is the unanimous opinion of the ulema[6] throughout the centuries that when enemies attack the Muslim lands, Jihad becomes a personal duty of every Muslim.’[7] The Declaration firmly defines America’s status as the aggressor within the setting of war, which allows radical Islam every amount of freedom of violence within the concept of self-defence, and provides them with theological justification. 

Jihad (Jahada)
Jihad is one of the central tenets of Islam and the spearhead of extremist Islamist ideology. Despite common misinterpretation, the term refers to a struggle or ‘just war’, rather than armed conflict or holy war. Islamic scriptures show Jihad to take two forms: the greater jihad, which refers to the internal struggle to live in accordance with the will of Allah; and lesser and external jihad, which indicates the physical defence of Islam. For the majority of Muslims it is generally acknowledged that the Qur’anic usage of the term primarily refers to internal jihad, and it therefore holds the most significance. The opposite is believed in militant Islamist ideology, where external jihad is of paramount importance. Referring to external struggle, Maudūdī claimed, it 'is as much of a primary duty of Muslims…as are daily prayers or fasting’,[8]  while Taymiyya referred to it as the ‘best of all the voluntary (good actions) which man performs, even better than the hajj’.[9]  Both statements propose that violent jihad is part of the fabric of Islam, and so crucial it could represent its sixth pillar. . Extremists interpret external jihad as being the divine duty of every Muslim, and they entrench their interpretation in religious context through radical scriptural (re)interpretation and purposefully narrow understandings. Inner reflection and a struggle to live a pure life is replaced with a intense propensity for violence. 

Jahiliyya is another Qur’anic concept that has undergone reworking to become a key element within extremist rhetoric. The traditional Islamic understanding of Jahiliyya referred to the ‘period of paganism that prevailed in Arabia before the advent of the Prophet and of Islam’[10] – a form of ignorance in the ways of Islam. Qutb, a prominent Islamist and former leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, later aligned the concept with contemporary society and redefined it to refer to a new age of ignorance (of Islam). For all Muslims the primarily tenet of Islam is tawhid (the understanding that there is one and only God who reigns supreme over everything), but Qutb proposed that modern secular society violates that divine clause by attempting to  override the laws of Allah by implementing  secular political rule and monarchical systems. Jahiliyya ‘takes the form of claiming the right to create values, to legislate rules of collective behaviour, and to choose any way of life…without regard to what God has prescribed.’[11] Thus ‘by redefining jahiliyya to encompass modern secular systems of political organization, [Qutb] is basically decreeing that all existing systems are unacceptable and even antithetical to the spirit of Islam.’[12]

By attaching this understanding to modern society, Qutb provided an ideological framework in which radical Muslims could use principles of Islam to fight secular and infidel regimes. This demonstrates how clerical reinterpretation can rework theology and history to create a potent ideological mixture, and reinforce the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims, by promoting violent jihad.

Takfir (Al-Takfir W'al Hijra)
Qutb also promoted the doctrine of takfir and his perverted understanding of it and jahiliyya have become dangerous justifications for violence by promoting and justifying widespread judgment and retribution of ‘apostate’ societies and individuals. Classically, the practice of takfir refers to the declaration of communities or individuals as having departed into unbelief, and become jahili or kufr. In Islam this charge amounts to apostasy and warrants the death penalty in accordance with Shari`a law. The Ulema (legal scholars and arbiters of Shari‘a), have traditionally recognised the dangers of takfir and decreed that it should not be applied to anyone claiming to be Muslim. However, Qutb embraced and promoted the concept in his writings, and used it to denounce all rival groups and individuals as kufr, and paved the way for violent jihad. 

However, this interpretation is considered controversial by non-extremists as it contradicts the inherent value that Islam places on unity among believers. In fact, most claims of piety and religious references made by 'Islamic terrorists', are met by dubious disbelief by the public majority. The violent actions of a minority of extremists do not define a whole religion and there is clearly a huge disconnect between the beliefs of radicalised and 'moderate' Muslims. Scriptural reinterpretation is employed by radical sects in all faiths, and while adherents to such understandings may believe they are acting in accordance with their God's will, they are being driven by a perversion. 

Similarly to the question of what part faith plays in Islamic extremism, there is much debate as to whether radicals are driven by political aspirations. Does faith or politics provide the root cause for terrorism, or are the two intertwined? The next article addresses the political elements that can be found within extremist doctrine before a conclusion is drawn as to what is the cause of religious terrorism what role does Islam actually play.

[1] Stemmann (2006), p.8
[2] Habeck (2006), p.18
[3] Khadduri (1979), pp. 62-66
[4] Hoffman (2006), p.93
[5] Lewis (2003), pp. xxiii-xxiv
[6] A grouping of Muslim scholars identified as experts in Islamic theology and divine law.
[7] Lewis (2003), pp. xxiii-xxiv
[8] Maudūdī (1960), p.94
[9] Taimiyya (2000), p.138
[10] Lewis, (2003), p. 6

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